The ’New Gay?’ Polyamorists Pursue Legitimacy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday September 9, 2010

Polyamorists in Canada are seeking legitimacy for consensual, familial relationships between non-related adults... a lot of them. Or, at least, more than the usual two.

As a starting point, they have gone to court to challenge language in Canada's penal code that outlaws polygamy. The difference between the two, polyamory and polygamy, is a matter of making it legal through marriage; today, polygamy is still practiced in certain parts of the world, such as Arabic countries, where men may have up to three wives, through they are expected to provide for them equally. Muslim men in India are also allowed to marry multiple wives. The Bible also describes how Hebrew patriarchs of antiquity had multiple wives.

Polyamory is a more complicated issue, noted Daphne Bramham, a columnist the Vancouver Sun in a Sept. 9 article. Whereas polygamous societies and religions typically grant one man the right to wed multiple wives--not the other way around--polyamorists are willing to mix it up in a variety of ways. Some might accept both male and female partners into a group living situation, or, short of that, an understanding among all parties that sexual relationships are accepted between all of the individuals within the trio, the tetrad, or the group of however many.

But even sex is not necessarily the defining element in a polyamorous relationship, according to polyamory advocate John Ince, Bramham noted. "Ince even suggests that it's non-sexual and is based in love (amore), not sex," the columnist wrote. In any event, "what Ince and the [Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association] want is nothing less than the sweeping legal and social reform that occurred in 1967."

By that, Bramham was referring to then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau's declaration that the private lives of citizens should be free from governmental meddling. Trudeau introduced a bill that, once passed into law, decriminalized homosexuality.

The reference may have been to sweeping legal changes of the past but, Bramham wrote, polyamory is seen by its advocates as "the way of the future," and to an extent, the way of the present as well; Ince claims that as many as two million Canadians are intimately involved with more than one individual. They are, however, in the closet about it.

Opponents to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples have often attempted to link same-sex pairings with an array of sexual issues including incest, pedophilia, bestiality, and group marriages. Once same-sex families secure their rights under the law, anti-gay activists claim, it's only a matter of time before men will be marrying their dogs, or multiple spouses--or, for that matter, whole packs of dogs.

Marriage parity advocates counter that the issues are all separate and distinct, and maintain that securing their rights to marry one person of the same gender is their single goal. Other issues may exist--but they are not pertinent to the struggle for marriage parity for gay and lesbian families that follow to pair-bonding model.

Still, for many people, any form of relationship falling outside the male/female pair-bonding model tends to be grouped into one amorphous category. An essay on polyamory at blog The Writerly Life notes, "Other 'kinks' have come and gone as the primary target of "polite" society's moral outrage--homosexuality, orgies, swinging--and forged, in some people's homes, an uneasy truce. Polyamory, then, might be the last taboo--possibly because many people can barely navigate the obstacles of one relationship, let alone several.

"But, contrary to popular belief, people who engage in 'poly' say they aren't just in it for the sex--although that doesn't hurt," the essay adds. Such sentiments echo the arguments of marriage equality advocates, who point out that same-sex relationships are about far more than the mechanics of sexual intercourse between the individuals involved.

Polyamory advocates also maintain that emotional connection, rather than sexual variety, is a primary element in such relationships. An online essay about polyamory at states, "Polyamory is not 'cheating.' It is a relationship structure built with the knowledge and approval of all partners involved. No secret relationships exist in polyamory. Openness, honesty, communication, trust... All the things that are key to a monogamous relationship are vital to polyamory.

"Polyamory is not out to replace monogamy," the essay adds. "Just as monogamy doesn't 'fit' certain individuals, neither does polyamory. The two practices are not mutually exclusive, nor opposed in any way. Like most things in life, it's a matter of personal choice."

The relevant language in Canadian law, section 293, states, "Everyone who practices or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practice or enter into any form of polygamy, or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage, or celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned in subparagraph (a)(i) or (ii) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."

A "reference case" is scheduled to begin in court on Nov. 22.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.